For the Israelis, time is slipping away for them to act in their own strategic interest. The expansion of settlements must end; they are illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace. That is why we voted in favour of

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the UN Security Council resolution on this subject in February and why we continue to condemn the announcement of new settlements. The Israeli Government need to take bolder steps than Israeli leaders have been prepared to do in recent years.

Separately, I welcome the agreement between Israel and Hamas to release the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, as part of a prisoner exchange. Holding him in captivity was utterly unjustified from the beginning, yet it has gone on for five long years, and the whole House will warmly welcome his return home.

The Government are determined to do all we can to support peaceful economic and political reform across the middle east and north Africa through our Arab partnership initiative, the work of our embassies and our role in the European Union and the G8.

In Tunisia, we are supporting voter education in rural areas. We are helping the government of Morocco to improve transparency in Government Departments. In Algeria, we are supporting a loans scheme for young entrepreneurs. In Egypt, we are helping to establish an academy to provide new female candidates and their election campaigners with relevant skills.

We helped to secure a revised European neighbourhood policy, which makes an ambitious offer of much deeper economic and trade integration and more explicitly conditional financial assistance, and the G8 has pledged $38 billion for the region. In both cases, we want to see policy turned into action, so that the whole of Europe and the G8 can act as magnets for change. The Arab spring has brought conflict and uncertainty, but it undoubtedly has the potential to bring about the greatest single advance in human freedom since the end of the cold war.

We are also determined to learn the wider lessons of these events. On 16 March I announced a review of policy and practice relating to the export of equipment that might be used for internal repression, in particular crowd-control equipment. I have this morning laid a further written ministerial statement before the House outlining a package of proposals resulting from that review, which concluded that measures should be taken to improve aspects of UK export policy. We will introduce a new mechanism to allow Ministers to respond more rapidly and decisively to the outbreak of conflict or to unpredicted events like the Arab spring, by suspending licensing. Our proposals also include steps to strengthen decision making when we provide security and justice assistance overseas. That announcement does not preclude additional measures or further strengthening of the system.

On all these issues, the Government will continue to defend human rights and support political and economic freedom and to work closely with our allies in the interests of peace and stability for this vital region.

Mr Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement, and for advance sight of it this morning. On the Government review of policy and practice relating to the export of equipment that might be used for internal repression, we will study the package carefully. I welcome the statement, given continuing events in the middle east, and note that the last time the House had the opportunity to discuss such a statement was on 29 June.

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Let me turn first to Libya, where our forces are still engaged in upholding United Nations Security Council resolutions. Much progress has been made in Libya since the House last met, thanks in no small measure to the continuing and characteristic professionalism of our armed forces in enforcing those resolutions. Fighting continues around Sirte, as the Foreign Secretary says, and I would be grateful if he gave further details of the situation on the ground. I note the presence of the Defence Secretary, who has said that the fall of Sirte is “getting very close”; perhaps the Foreign Secretary is willing to give a time scale, given continuing events in the city.

Will the Foreign Secretary give his reaction to concerns expressed yesterday by the Libyan oil and finance Minister, Mr Ali Tarhouni, and the deputy chief of the national transitional council’s executive committee, that weapons are still entering the country in a way that could threaten its future stability?

On Syria, the right hon. Gentleman rightly condemned President Assad and urged him again to step aside. We welcome the fact that Europe has moved to broaden sanctions on the regime, including on its oil sales; Labour Members have argued for that for some months. However, it is six months since Ministers stated that Syria was

“at a fork in the road.”

In light of the continuing bloodshed and repression, will the Foreign Secretary give some detail of the character of the Turkish unilateral actions now under consideration, and will he give us more information on the expected extension of European Union sanctions?

I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed by the brevity of the Foreign Secretary’s remarks on Bahrain, given his previous recognition of the need for more fundamental reform there and, of course, its historically strong links with the United Kingdom. Indeed, in March the Foreign Secretary told the House that

“the King of Bahrain pledged himself…to further such reforms.”—[Official Report, 17 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 1137.]

However, in recent months, there has been little evidence of real and substantive reform, and further evidence of deeply troubling events, such as the sentencing of the doctors whom the Foreign Secretary spoke about. Will the Foreign Secretary reassure the House that continuing worries about Bahrain will be met with ongoing diplomatic efforts from the British Government, and will he set out what steps he intends to take? In April, the Foreign Secretary expressed his frustration that

“In Yemen, attempts at agreeing a political transition have repeatedly stalled or failed.”—[Official Report, 4 April 2011; Vol. 526, c. 753.]

Six months on, can he tell us what further steps he is planning to take to help prevent further dangerous deterioration in the situation there?

Recent events in Cairo will also cause concern to many who remain friends to the new Egypt. I join the Foreign Secretary in condemning unequivocally the killing of 24 Coptic Christians after recent demonstrations. That is just the latest, though clearly one of the most serious, causes of concern. The deaths in Cairo have reportedly prompted the resignation of Egypt’s Finance Minister, Hazem el-Beblawi; in addition, Egyptian output

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fell by 4.2% on the previous year in the first quarter of this year alone. Does the Foreign Secretary share my concern about what will happen to the Egyptian economy, and that access to European markets in particular needs to be accelerated?

Eight months after the revolution, the armed forces continue to run the country through their supreme council. The emergency laws originally introduced by President Mubarak have been maintained, and there is at least some talk of the presidential election being slipped to 2015. Will the Foreign Secretary share with the House the Government’s assessment of the situation, and his judgment as to when presidential elections will take place and when power will effectively be transferred from military to civilian authority?

Let me associate myself entirely with the Foreign Secretary’s remarks about the prospect of Gilad Shalit’s long-overdue release, and the recognition that a negotiated two-state solution remains the route towards peace and stability in the region. There is much common ground on the issue across the House. However, I note the carefully chosen words that the Foreign Secretary used in relation to the recognition of Palestinian statehood in the United Nations. Will he confirm today that it has never been the case that that recognition can only follow the conclusion of the negotiations? Will he offer the House a little more insight on where those discussions in the Security Council have reached?

Let me turn to Iran. I concur with the concerns expressed by the Foreign Secretary, but will he give us the British Government’s view of where that leaves the E3 plus 3 process? In June, he promised:

“Until Iran negotiates seriously, international pressure against it will only increase.”—[Official Report, 7 June 2011; Vol. 529, c. 35.]

Will he set out what measures he expects to use to increase that pressure? We know that being able to see protests elsewhere in the middle east and north Africa, online or on satellite television, was a key driver of the changes that we witnessed this year, so what action is the Government taking to support the BBC Persian service, which has been subject to repeated attempts to jam and otherwise block its important information?

These remain days of great possibility and great peril for the middle east and north Africa. I hope that the Government continue to keep the House updated in the weeks and months ahead.

Mr Hague: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those questions; I think that they reflect the large measure of agreement across the House on many of the issues. I shall run through his questions in the order in which he asked them.

The right hon. Gentleman was quite right, of course, to pay an additional tribute to our armed forces and the work that they have done on Libya. He asked what the situation is in Sirte. There remain two small, steadily shrinking areas where the pro-Gaddafi forces fight on. I do not think that it is possible to give a time scale—[Interruption.]—well, a more precise time scale than anyone has given so far, which is what the shadow Foreign Secretary was asking for. We have always resisted putting precise time scales on things. However, clearly great advances have been made by the free Libya forces

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in recent weeks and days, and there are now two small areas left. That shows that the pro-Gaddafi forces that remain are in a very difficult position.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to ask about weapons coming into the country. Indeed, that is part of the issue of the stabilisation of Libya. The national transitional council has been consistently underestimated in the past six months, at every stage. International opinion, many media commentators and sometimes those in this House thought that the council did not have the capacity or expertise to get a grip on its country. It has shown at every stage that it does, and I think that it will, in addition, have that ability when it comes to controlling the supply of weapons. We are giving it assistance in tracking down some of the weapons of the Gaddafi regime that have gone missing, and that assistance will continue.

Syria has long since passed the fork in the road. The right hon. Gentleman is right that back in March, I said that it was at a fork in the road—I said it for a while—but the Assad regime is now far past the fork, and sadly it took the wrong fork. That is why we said in August, along with the United States and our European partners, that Assad should go, and that the regime should come to an end. It is for the Turks to announce, of course, the details of their proposals. For reasons that will become obvious, I cannot give details of the next measure that the European Union will take; action against a major Syrian entity will be announced pretty soon.

The right hon. Gentleman was worried about the brevity of my remarks on Bahrain, but that was simply to comply with Mr Speaker’s strictures. One could talk for hours on any of the subjects that we are discussing, and if the House sets aside the time, I will be delighted to do so. Over the past few months, Bahrain has taken some actions that are welcome, and some that are very unwelcome; it has gone in different directions—sometimes at the same time, speaking frankly. It was welcome that it announced the commission of inquiry into abuses, and indeed put internationally respected people on it. I also welcome its decision, after the international outcry about the trial of the doctors and nurses, about the retrial. It is welcome that it has attempted, since the time that the right hon. Gentleman was talking about, a national dialogue in Bahrain, yet of course there are many valid, legitimate criticisms as well, and allegations of human rights abuses. That national dialogue has not yet been successful in bringing everybody together in Bahrain.

The diplomatic message to Bahrain is communicated in many different ways, including by me, in my conversations with the Foreign Minister of Bahrain. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), is in regular discussion with the Bahraini authorities. The National Security Adviser, Sir Peter Ricketts, recently visited Bahrain and made clear our views on all these matters, so I want to put the emphasis for the next 17 days, up to the publication of the commission of inquiry’s report, on the great importance that I think all of us in the House attach to that, because the credibility of the report and the readiness to act on it will be an important test of how Bahrain will approach the coming weeks and months.

In Yemen, we are taking many steps to support an orderly transition of power. I pay tribute again to the staff in our embassy in Yemen, who work in what is

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perhaps the most dangerous situation that any of our diplomats face around the world. I visited them there in February. They do a great job in supporting the Gulf Co-operation Council’s efforts to promote dialogue and trying to persuade all sides to sign up to the orderly transition of power. We continue to work closely with the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, on this. As I have said, we are about to discuss this in the United Nations Security Council and are considering whether a resolution there would add to the international pressure on the President to sign up to an orderly transition of power.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the Egyptian economy. I expressed those concerns to the Egyptian Foreign Minister when I talked with him last night and, in particular, asked him and the Egyptian Government to take steps to give investors in Egypt greater confidence about both security and in relation to recent court decisions. That is very important to British businesses, which are the largest investors in Egypt, particularly in the oil and gas sectors. He undertook to do that, and UK Ministers will of course strongly reiterate these concerns on forthcoming visits.

The right hon. Gentleman is also right to raise concerns about the timetable for presidential elections slipping. When I asked the Egyptian Foreign Minister about that yesterday, he said that he believed that the elections would take place by the summer of next year. According to other commentators, that is an optimistic timetable. Without interfering in the sovereign affairs of Egypt, I think that we can continue to express our view that the sooner such elections take place, the better. Egypt of course needs clear and strong civilian leadership in the form of a democratically elected President, and that cannot come about too soon.

The right hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement on welcoming the release of Gilad Shalit. The Security Council is considering the membership application of the Palestinians through its normal procedures. When and how to take that forward will be partly up to the Security Council and partly up to its members. There is currently no specific proposition before the Security Council on this. He said that I had expressed carefully chosen words on the issue. They are very carefully chosen, because words really matter on this issue. It is a delicate and difficult subject. Our words are all directed towards trying to bring about the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. How we act in the Security Council or on any motion that may come before the UN General Assembly will be determined by how we can bring about a resumption of negotiations. All 27 EU countries have withheld a verdict on motions at the UN, partly because there is currently no specific motion to vote on, but also to maximise our leverage over both Israelis and Palestinians to return to talks. That is the basis of our position and I think that it would be wrong to move away from it at the moment.

On Iran, we announced considerable additional European sanctions at the end of May. We are working on further sanctions, but I am not in a position to announce those today. The attempted action revealed by the United States this week makes a strong case for additional measures, which we are now discussing with our partners. The right hon. Gentleman rightly identified the importance of the BBC Persian service, through which we should communicate at every opportunity.

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Attempts are made to block that, but we of course support the service politically, diplomatically and technically in any way we can.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. We have taken quite a long time so far, so we need brevity in the questions that will be asked and certainly more brevity in the answers.

Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the advancements that could be made after the long-overdue release of Gilad Shalit could be followed by Hamas agreeing to recognise the state of Israel and renounce violence?

Mr Hague: This successful negotiation is a ray of hope in a difficult and often bleak situation in the middle east. It shows that a successful negotiation can be carried out with the involvement of Israel and, as was necessary in this case, Hamas, through the good offices of Egypt, and I congratulated the Egyptian Foreign Minister on Egypt’s role in this. It would of course be welcome if Hamas were to move away from its rigid positions. If peace is to be brought about, it is very important that all concerned recognise Israel’s right to exist, support previous agreements and denounce the use of violence. It would be very welcome if Hamas would do those things or make concrete moves towards them.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): On the same theme, does the Foreign Secretary accept that the continued economic siege of Gaza creates the space for the most extreme voices to gain traction there? If we are to see movement towards a proper negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, is it not necessary for that economic siege to be lifted?

Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman’s terminology is slightly different from how I would describe the situation, but yes, we think that the Israelis should act to allow more goods into and out of Gaza. We have criticised the current policy on many occasions, although there have been some improvements over the past year. I agree with the gist of his remarks. Often the effect of the policy has been to strengthen the position of Hamas domestically within Gaza and its financial interests there. It would be wiser for Israel to change the policy, just as it is necessary for Hamas to change its policies in the way I have just described.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): We have seen the winds of change blowing though north Africa and the middle east in an encouraging way and the British Government have been strong and robust in their words and actions, for which I congratulate the Foreign Secretary. We have also seen the opportunities in Israel and Palestine with the pending release of Gilad Shalit and the deal. It would be helpful, and compatible with the negotiations and Baroness Ashton’s intervention, if we ensured that Israel knows that Britain’s objective will be to recognise a Palestinian state as soon as possible so that there can be parity and equality in the negotiations and their conclusions?

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Mr Hague: It is of course our objective to help bring about a two-state solution. We believe in and want to see a Palestinian state, but that state will only be a truly viable state, in control of its own territory and able to make its own decisions, as a result of negotiations with Israel. We can pass all the resolutions we like at the United Nations, or not, but what is required is a successful negotiation. That is what we must keep in mind. Our attitude to the recognition and inclusion of Palestine at the United Nations is determined by how we can restart negotiations. I put it that way round, but the objective is absolutely as my right hon. Friend describes it—to have a Palestinian state.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): When the right hon. Gentleman talks about carefully chosen words with regard to the Palestinian application for membership of the United Nations, will he note that the carefully chosen words of Obama and Clinton are already intended to oppose the application totally and bully and blackmail other countries as well as the Palestinians into opposing it? Will he assure the House that the Government will not succumb to that bullying and blackmailing and that they will do the right thing for the Palestinians?

Mr Hague: Of course, I work closely with Secretary Clinton on this and other issues, so I do not characterise the United States’ policy as the right hon. Gentleman does. Nevertheless, there are differences between us and the United States in our approach to the issue. We voted in opposite ways on the resolution on settlements in February, and we have a different way of handling the Palestinian approach to the UN: the United States has discouraged it—that is absolutely right.

I believe, however, that President Abbas did achieve at the UN General Assembly the highlighting of the issue in front of the world. Nothing technically changed at the United Nations, but he did achieve that and did press on the world the urgency of it—and he was right to do that. So we do differ from the United States in many things that we say on the issue, although we share with them the objective of a negotiated two-state solution.

Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement, and in particular I am very encouraged by mention of training and support, and whatever, for female candidates in Egypt. Can he assure me that the Government will continue to take a leading role in pressing for women to benefit from the new political and economic freedoms that we hope will sweep across the region?

Mr Hague: Yes, absolutely. That is of immense importance and one of the potentially very exciting aspects of the ongoing change in the Arab world. Senior people in Saudi Arabia told me before the recent announcement by the King that they cannot treat the next generation of women in the same way as the previous generation—they know that.

We have made the case in all our contacts with the Libyan authorities for the much greater involvement of women in their public life. The International Development Secretary and I met leading women in civil society in

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Benghazi on our visit there in June, so we will continue very much to encourage that, and I agree with my hon. Friend.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary know why the Bahraini doctors and nurses are on trial in any court, criminal or civil, bearing in mind that they were just doing their jobs and could be covered by international humanitarian law?

Mr Hague: It is absolutely not my brief to defend the Bahraini Government in their handling of the situation. There are allegations about those doctors and nurses, and some in Bahrain argue that they were not going about their jobs but doing other things. It is not for me, however, to state those allegations or to agree with them. Those people should have been tried, if they needed to be tried at all, in a transparent way, in a civil court and with, of course, a fair judgment at the end. Therefore, we welcome the decision that they should be retried, and we will all watch very closely how that retrial takes place and what the verdicts are.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): The Foreign Secretary is right to draw attention to the elections being held in Morocco next month and to their importance. What significance does he ascribe to the far-reaching constitutional reforms announced as part of the referendum held in July in that country? Does he agree, as he has before, that Morocco offers a beacon of hope in a region that has been blighted by conflict and violent disorder over the past several months?

Mr Hague: Yes, I do agree. The King of Morocco has shown a determination to be ahead of the curve in the demand for change, in his own country and throughout the region, and that should be strongly welcomed. I will visit Morocco shortly to see for myself what is happening and to discuss those matters in more detail. It is part of the excitement that we should feel about what is now possible in north Africa. If we just imagine Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and, we hope, Egypt as more open societies and economies, we find that the possibilities for their citizens in terms of freedom and economic progress are a tremendously exciting development in world affairs.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): The first question that the Foreign Secretary was asked from the Government side of the House basically involved urging Hamas to recognise the state of Israel, and if I understood the Foreign Secretary correctly, he broadly agreed with that idea. I think that both sides of the House would have a real problem, whatever individual Palestinian or Israeli political parties did about recognising each other, if there were any doubt about the international community recognising Israel. That being the case, why should there be any doubt about the international community recognising Palestine? Sooner or later a decision will have to be made on the issue at the Security Council. How will the Foreign Secretary take the feeling of the House before Britain makes its decision on that question?

Mr Hague: The paramount need is to return to negotiations—I stress that. The Palestinian state that the hon. Gentleman and I want to see come securely

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into existence will come about in the end only through successful negotiations, and therefore the difficulties that arise with ideas of UN resolutions at the Security Council or in the General Assembly are the dangers of resolutions that may undermine the prospect of negotiations, rather than buttress them. That is what we have to weigh in the balance, and carrying resolutions that then make it harder to pursue negotiations or are not accompanied by a clear commitment to return to negotiations may not be helpful. That is just one factor that we have to weigh in the balance.

On parliamentary opinion, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I make as many statements as possible on this subject—I think more in this calendar year than any Foreign Secretary has made in some decades; and, if the business managers can find time for debates on these matters, I would welcome it.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s rejection of the admonitions of some in this House for precipitate recognition of Palestinian statehood. He may know that in December 2008 I raised in an Adjournment debate the incarceration of Gilad Shalit, who has been in captivity since 25 June 2006. Will my right hon. Friend restate the imperative for Hamas to use that gesture as an opportunity to build for the future, to reject violence and terror, and to move towards peace and prosperity under the auspices of the Quartet principles?

Mr Hague: Yes, I very much agree. In line with my earlier answer to our hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott), that is absolutely right. That gesture is a glimmer of hope, but it is very good news in the individual case of Gilad Shalit. In terms of the overall scene we should not overstate it, as it is a glimmer of hope, but all sides should now seek to build on it.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s focus on the importance of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians as the only way to achieve a viable and lasting Palestinian state alongside Israel, but what steps is he taking to secure the resumption of those negotiations, without conditions, as the Quartet requests?

Mr Hague: We have made our view very clear, including in discussions at the United Nations General Assembly. For instance, during the General Assembly ministerial week last month, I held direct talks with President Abbas and with the Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr Lieberman. At the beginning of that week, our Prime Minister also spoke to the Israeli Prime Minister about the matter, and we have urged all of them to return to negotiations in the spirit that I described in my statement.

Of course, we work through the European Union as a whole and through the very good work of Baroness Ashton on the matter, and we also influence the work of the Quartet—the EU, the UN, the United States and Russia —whose statement on 23 September provided the framework and timetable for a resumption of negotiations, so we are active on this issue on all diplomatic fronts.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I commend my right hon. Friend and, particularly, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon.

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Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on their work over many years to secure the release of Gilad Shalit. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the fact that Israel has released more then 1,000 prisoners, many of whom were involved in horrific terrorist atrocities, shows that it is willing to negotiate and to make some moves towards peace?

Mr Hague: Yes, I do agree, and I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, as does the Under-Secretary; we are grateful for that. The release does show such willingness, but it is now important to replicate it in other negotiations.

In this case, Israel has made, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) suggests, a decisive offer to bring about the release of Gilad Shalit; we now need Israel to make decisive offers on a much grander scale in order to bring about a two-state solution. That is what we urge it to do in the coming weeks. It will be necessary for Israel to do so if we are to arrive at that two-state solution, because without that solution Israel will be in a steadily more isolated and dangerous international situation.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I thank the Foreign Secretary for the individual efforts that he made with regard to Gilad Shalit; I know that that is greatly appreciated. I also support his comments about the persecution and murder of Coptic Christians and other minorities in Egypt.

Turning to the cocktail of crises on the African continent, is it not about time that there was an Africa summit led by this nation, with our partners across the world, to address the many-faceted problems and to keep world attention on those problems so that we can help to resolve them and bring freedom, encouragement and business acumen to that continent?

Mr Hague: There are, in effect, many such summits. The G8 summit at Deauville at the end of May focused absolutely on that, and it was followed up by a meeting of the G8 Finance Ministers early in September and the meeting of G8 Foreign Ministers in New York that I attended on 20 September. That is about much of the western world—the developed world—trying to ensure that it is a magnet for change and for economic and political freedom in north Africa. A total of $38 billion of finance is available multilaterally to these countries. That effort is very much going on. Of course, the African Union also holds its own summits, and we are present and active around them—my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary, in particular. This country has a very strong record in promoting freedom and prosperity in Africa.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): The positive example of Liberia and the rather more depressing tale of Angola show that the involvement of women in post-conflict negotiations is not just a matter of equality—it is absolutely vital for security and stability. How is the Foreign Secretary using his influence to ensure, at this critical time in the formation of new Governments and institutions in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, that women are around the table, with full speaking rights, as an essential part of those future successful states?

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Mr Hague: That is a very high priority for the Department for International Development in all the work that it does, and it is an important priority in our Arab Partnership fund. I listed earlier some of the projects that we are undertaking: for instance, to train and assist female candidates for election in Egypt. Of course, we cannot ensure that such things happen in those countries—we are not a sovereign power—but we can transmit the right signals and encouragement all the time, and we do so. The Prime Minister very much did that in his meeting with national transitional council members in Tripoli a few weeks ago. I will be visiting Libya and many other north African countries shortly, and I will return to that subject constantly.

Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Would not a successful resolution on UN membership for Palestine strengthen the hand of Fatah, whereas at the moment, with the prisoner exchange, Hamas is looking as though it is more successful than Fatah?

Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman has an important point. It is true that how we act at the United Nations and how we promote negotiations must support the work of the moderate leaders of the Palestinians. I do not think that Israel is going to have better partners than President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for reaching peace and a two-state solution. That is why we should not be dismissive of their efforts and what they have brought to the United Nations, with President Abbas’s speech on 23 September. It nevertheless remains the case that a return to negotiations is the only way to bring about what we want. The simple passing of resolutions, if passed in a form that makes the situation worse in some ways—the US Congress has threatened to cut off funding and the Israeli Government have threatened to withhold tax revenues under certain scenarios—would not bring about that negotiated solution. That remains our paramount interest in our approach to these matters.

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): I thank the Foreign Secretary for his comprehensive statement. There are worrying signs in Egypt. Under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, there has been increasing use of summary justice and emergency powers, as well as the reports of shooting of Coptic Christians. What is Britain doing specifically to facilitate the transition to democracy there? In particular, does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is vital that the forthcoming elections are overseen by international monitors?

Mr Hague: In answer to the early part of my hon. Friend’s question, we are active in particular projects in Egypt, and we are also active diplomatically, in persuasion and pressure where necessary about respect for minorities such as the Copts in Egypt, respect for human rights, and so on. My hon. Friend will have to remind me of the last point in his question.

Mr Raab: Monitors.

Mr Hague: Monitors, yes. In the case of Egypt, it is important that the terminology is right. The Egyptians do not like the term monitors, or even observers—I think they would prefer to call such people witnesses—but the concept is the same. I discussed that with the Egyptian

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Foreign Minister last night. Certainly, Egypt is now accepting such witnesses—or monitors, or whatever they are to be called—for the forthcoming elections.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s initiative in seeking a discussion on Yemen at the Security Council. Does he know why the President of Yemen has changed his mind? He had agreed to go, the Gulf states and he backed it, and now he has changed his mind. Will the Foreign Secretary consider making a visit to Sana’a, as he has before, perhaps with another EU Foreign Minister, to try to enter into a proper discussion on these matters?

Mr Hague: We will consider any step that helps. The right hon. Gentleman is asking me to read the mind of the President of Yemen. Having met him on my visit in February, I know that that is an extremely difficult thing to do, even when sitting talking to him, let alone watching developments from afar. I do not know whether he has changed his mind or whether he ever decided to give up power; there are different hypotheses about that. One of the constraining factors is the presence of people around him who do not want to give up power, whatever his own intentions. There are indications that that puts back the signing of an agreement and an orderly transition. We will keep on with all our efforts and pursue them in any effective way that we can. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s welcome for our approach at the United Nations.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): My right hon. Friend will be aware that I have just returned from a trip to Jordan and the west bank. I used the opportunity of a meeting with the Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister, Mr Fayyad, to call on him to facilitate the release of Gilad Shalit. I was therefore delighted when that action took place the following day. However, I do not claim the credit; I express the delight of everyone in this House that it has finally happened. During the visit, it became evident to me that the level of settlement activity on the west bank is speeding up, and that is obviously of great importance. Will my right hon. Friend therefore make sure that the Palestinians return to negotiations urgently, rather than using their time lobbying members of the Security Council and the United Nations to secure a vote, so that we can get a viable two-state solution?

Mr Hague: I am pleased that my hon. Friend raised the case of Gilad Shalit; he is well on his way to a Nobel peace prize for the instant result that was achieved on that. Yes, the pace of settlement activity, which is illegal and which is on occupied land, is wrong. It is also one reason why it is an urgent issue, because a two-state solution will become impossible in a few years’ time if it is not arrived at in the near future. That means Palestinians returning to talks, but it also means Israelis returning to them ready to make a decisive offer to Palestinians.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that very many Palestinians—I would imagine the large majority—believe that the western Governments, including the British Government, are much more on the side of Israel than of Palestine, and that therefore the question of a vote in the United Nations, if there is to be one, is of crucial importance regarding the line that Britain is going to take?

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Mr Hague: We are on the side of a two-state solution. We want a secure Israel living alongside a viable and secure Palestinian state. I do not see us as being on one side or the other. We make no compromises on the security or the legitimacy of Israel. The hon. Gentleman can gather from my remarks today and on many other occasions, and from the way that we have voted on settlements at the Security Council, that we believe in putting Israel under pressure to arrive at a two-state solution. We have done more of that, I have to say, than happened under any previous Government. That is the direction of our policy; it is not a matter of taking sides one way or the other.

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): May I turn the House’s attention to today’s written ministerial statement on the arms export regime? I welcome the tightening and strengthening of that regime, but there remain real concerns that British-made matériel is being used to suppress democratic movements, particularly in Bahrain. Will the Foreign Secretary publish the review and tell the House what more he is doing to stop British-made matériel being used to persecute people seeking democratic reform?

Mr Hague: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome for this move. On Bahrain, there is no evidence of British-made equipment being used in that way. He will be aware that we revoked export licences to Bahrain to try to make sure of that for the future. The review points the way to being able to make such decisions at earlier stages if enough is known about a situation. The internal report gives advice to Ministers and contains commercial information, so I do not envisage publishing it, although I have published its conclusions. As I indicated in the written ministerial statement, I am open to taking further measures and to further consideration of the matter.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): We support the Foreign Secretary when he condemns Gaddafi’s torture in Libya and Bashar Assad’s torture in Syria. Why will he not condemn the al-Khalifa family’s torture in Bahrain? Is he aware that the senior police officers who were suspended for that torture have been reinstated? Women doctors should not be put in prison after a fake trial. If that happened in Burma or Zimbabwe, the Foreign Secretary would be straight out there calling for their release. Instead of welcoming an announcement and attaching great importance to it, will the Foreign Secretary say from the Dispatch Box that these women should be freed this afternoon?

Mr Hague: I think that I have been very clear in what I have said about that matter. I do not think that the Bahraini Government are in any doubt about our views on these issues; I expressed them forcefully to the Bahraini ambassador last week. They must not miss the opportunity that is there with the report on 30 October. The difference between Bahrain and Libya is that a political process is alive in Bahrain. The only way forward for Bahrain is for that political process to succeed and for an accommodation to be reached between its Shi’a and Sunni communities. That is a different situation from the one that prevailed in Libya six months ago.

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Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I lived for three years in Yemen, for three years in Bahrain and also in Jordan. I was always told not to make any comment about the Sunni or Shi’a branches of Islamic religion. May I ask the Foreign Secretary to ensure, as I am sure he is doing, that our diplomats are utterly bipartisan and as neutral as possible in this matter, because it has a knock-on effect elsewhere, for example, dare I say it, in trade?

Mr Hague: Yes, I assure my hon. Friend that our diplomats are religiously neutral about religion. We support the rights of minorities throughout the world, including the right to freedom of worship. In that, we do not differentiate religions and that should apply all over the world.

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): I have profound respect for the role of our armed services in Libya. However, we know from experience in Afghanistan and Iraq that the challenges of post-war reconstruction can be as taxing as military operations. Will the Foreign Secretary soon make a written statement to spell out our plans for post-war reconstruction in Libya and for the development of democratic institutions using agencies such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy? Will Britain support the inclusion of Libya in NATO’s Mediterranean dialogue?

Mr Hague: I will seek every opportunity to keep the House updated on what we are doing. To give a brief answer, I stress that this is a very different situation from Iraq or Afghanistan: there is no serious damage to the civilian infrastructure, it is a Libyan-led effort and there is no occupying army. The hon. Gentleman asks about our plans, but I stress that they are Libya’s plans for the stabilisation of its country. They are not plans for reconstruction, because the children are at school, the shops are open and the traffic is running, as I have seen for myself in Tripoli and Benghazi. We are involved in many ways, some of which I listed in my statement. As matters develop, as the transitional Government come in and as the UN mission expands its work, I would be happy to spell out in more detail in a written statement or in another statement to the House what we will be doing.

Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): In the past year, the Egyptian economy has shrunk by more than 4%. That is reflected throughout the middle east, demonstrating that the Arab spring started because of economic disadvantage and a lack of economic opportunities. What efforts is the Foreign Secretary making to sponsor a dialogue between the European Union and those African countries? He has mentioned the efforts of the British authorities, but surely the crucial factor will be reaching an EU-wide agreement to support those economies and help them through this difficult period.

Mr Hague: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point. That is why we place such emphasis on the European neighbourhood policy being a bold and ambitious policy that offers closer economic integration to those countries. There was a very good meeting of the EU-Tunisia taskforce on this matter in the past couple of weeks. That needs to be followed up by looking at Egypt. The

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role of the European Union is really in solidifying and expanding the economic links, and I think that that work is going on.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): On a recent visit to Gaza, the United Nations was keen to stress that 800,000 Gazans were living on UN food aid and that 600,000 of those people would receive no food aid at all come 1 January because of a lack of funds. If poverty is a major barrier to peace in the region, what can the Foreign Secretary do to remedy the impending humanitarian disaster?

Mr Hague: Through the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, we are one of the biggest contributors to the funding that goes to Gaza. Wherever such problems arise, we encourage other nations to join in with such funding. We will encourage other nations to do that, as indeed we have been doing. We are on to that.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): What estimate has the Foreign Office made of the number of Libyan students currently studying in the UK? There are a number in Leicester who have made representations to me. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on what arrangements are in place to ensure that those students continue to get funding from Libya so that they can continue in their studies?

Mr Hague: That was one of the major issues when we ordered the closure of the embassy of the old regime. From memory, there were about 8,000 Libyan students in the UK at that stage. Of course, that varies from one academic year to another. We were concerned at that time to ensure that the financial arrangements for those students were robust. Certainly, enough money was set aside for their support to be continued. We will monitor how that situation develops. The new Government of Libya have access to substantial financial resources and we will look to them to continue the support that has been given in the past.

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): I commend the work of the Foreign Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on religious freedom in the middle east and north Africa, and the specific action that the Foreign Secretary took last night with regard to Egypt. Will he say a little more about his general approach to religious freedom across the region, which is experiencing much change at the moment?

Mr Hague: The whole House believes in such freedom, in the rule of law and in places of worship being respected. The Foreign Minister of Egypt assured me last night that the violence with the Copts, in which 36 people were killed, is being investigated through an inquiry and that legislation concerning places of worship will be brought forward in Egypt. I hope that that will help to guarantee, at least in law, the sanctity of those places. Beyond that, there is a wider argument to be won across the middle east and north Africa. British and other western voices should be strong in that argument,

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pointing out the great advantages to those societies of diversity and respect for freedom of religion. Amid all the horrors of the Syrian regime, one good thing in recent years has been the right of minorities to practise their religion in Syria. We hope that that will continue.

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Point of Order

1.19 pm

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Along with other right hon. and hon. Members, I received today a letter from the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), saying that in future all his communications with us would be by e-mail. I do not challenge the sincerity of his desire not to spend an evening signing letters, or to be quicker or save a bit of paper, but I really do think it is a worry. When we send letters on to constituents, they should not be PDFs or bits of e-mails; they should be letters. They represent an important relationship between the state and the citizen. I am not sure, either, of the legal authority of letters that have not been physically signed. I do not want to add work for Ministers—believe me, I know what it is like—but will you look at the matter with your colleagues, perhaps including the Leader of the House, who is kindly in his seat, and work out whether it is a good initiative for any Minister to take?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): That was discussed at Speaker’s conference this morning, and Mr Speaker is certainly uneasy about it. Concern was expressed by the other Deputy Speakers, as well. I can say that Mr Speaker will investigate the matter.

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Backbench Business

[32nd( )Allotted Day]

Procedure Committee Reports

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Mr Speaker has selected the amendment to the motion on hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber. With the leave of the House, we will take the first four motions together.

1.21 pm

Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House notes the Third Report from the Procedure Committee on Use of hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber and committees, HC 889; and resolves that hand-held devices (not laptops) may be used in the Chamber, provided that they are silent, and used in a way that does not impair decorum, that Members making speeches in the Chamber or in committee may refer to electronic devices in place of paper speaking notes and that electronic devices, including laptops, may be used silently in committee meetings, including select committees.

Mr Deputy Speaker: With this we will consider the following:

Amendment (a) to motion 1, leave out from 'used in the Chamber’ to end and add

‘to a minimal extent, silently and with decorum, to receive and send urgent messages, as a substitute for paper speaking notes and to refer to documents for use in debates, but not for any other purpose.’.

Motion on Select Committee Amendments—

That this House approves the recommendations relating to select committee amendments contained in paragraph 21 of the Second Report from the Procedure Committee on Improving the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny, HC 800.

Motion on Explanatory Statements on Amendments to Bills—

That this House notes the recommendations relating to explanatory statements on amendments to bills contained in paragraphs 31 and 32 of the Second Report from the Procedure Committee on Improving the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny, HC 800; and invites the Leader of the House and the Procedure Committee to put in place a pilot scheme to implement these proposals in respect of one or more bills before the end of the next session.

Motion on Written Parliamentary Questions—

That this House approves the recommendations relating to written parliamentary questions contained in paragraphs 50 and 51 of the Second Report from the Procedure Committee on Improving the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny, HC 800.

Mr Knight: May I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for providing time this afternoon for these debates? I have to say that I do not think it should be the Committee’s responsibility to provide this time. These are House matters relating to the procedure of the House, and I think that in future the Government should provide time for debates such as this.

All the motions arise out of reports by the Procedure Committee. For the benefit of Members I should say that House of Commons papers 800, 889 and 1104 are relevant. I thank the members of the Committee for their hard work, which goes largely unnoticed. We frequently disagree, but it is part of our strength that we have a Committee comprised of a wide range of Members from all parts of the House.

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I wish to start by referring to the first motion, on hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber. The House last revised its rules on the use of such devices in the Chamber and in Committee in October 2007, and of course since that time the use of technology and the introduction of smaller and less obtrusive devices have developed rapidly, as has new software. I therefore believe we need to re-examine our rules.

I remember when I first purchased a mobile phone—I think I was one of the first people in the country to do so. I had to carry it with a shoulder strap, and the battery was larger than a large, bound volume of Hansard. It was a device that weighed about eight pounds, and it would have been totally impractical to bring it into the Chamber. Yet we now see devices that have the power of computers but are capable of being held in the palm of the hand. It is therefore right that we look again at our rules, and I hope that the House will agree to the motion before us.

As I said, the current rules go back to 2007. They permit the use of mobile phones and other hand-held devices to keep up to date with e-mails, provided that they cause no disturbance. Since 2007, the availability and use of new technology both within and outside Parliament has increased dramatically. There are many new devices, including portable tablet computers such as iPads, and smartphones, that did not exist when the Modernisation Committee drew up the report that led to our 2007 resolution. It was against that background that Mr Speaker and the Administration Committee asked the Procedure Committee to look into the matter and see whether it felt the rules should be changed. We gladly agreed to consider the matter further.

We have examined what happens in other parts of the world, and we were particularly impressed with the new and simple rule that has been introduced in the United States of America. There, the House of Representatives had previously banned the use of mobile phones and computers on the floor of the House, but on 5 January this year the new Congress agreed to a revised rule stating:

“A person on the floor of the House may not…use a mobile electronic device that impairs decorum.”

That seems to us straightforward and simple. It is designed to give discretion to the Speaker, or whoever else is in the Chair, to decide what sort of technology can be used by referring to how the device is used rather than what it is used for or what type of device it is, as was the case in the past.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I want to pick up my right hon. Friend on one very small point. He keeps talking about “us”, but I know he will acknowledge that the Procedure Committee was split on this matter, and that four of its members have signed the amendment.

Mr Knight: The Procedure Committee’s report upon which the debate is based was passed by a majority of Committee members voting on it. I am happy to acknowledge straight away that my hon. Friend has been an opponent of it from the beginning and voted against it in the Committee. I accept that this is a matter of fine judgment. I do not think it is one of those issues about which one can clearly say that the mainstream view is right and any other view is wrong, but I hope

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during my remarks to convince the House that, on balance, it should follow the majority view of the Committee.

I accept that there is a respectable argument that electronic devices should not be used at all in the Chamber or in Committees. It could be said that Members present at any time should be attending to the debate in hand and not undertaking any other activities, and that the use of electronic devices, even silently, could distract others. However, there are arguments the other way. I believe that the main arguments, although not all the arguments, in favour of permitting the use of electronic devices are pragmatic. The Modernisation Committee, to which I referred earlier, recommended the lifting of the restriction on hand-held devices, at least as far as e-mails were concerned, because of the possibility that allowing multi-tasking in the Chamber might increase the number of Members present in a debate. In a report specifically aimed at revitalising the Chamber, it argued:

“Members might be more willing to spend time in the Chamber listening to debates or waiting to be called if they were able to do other work at the same time, either dealing with correspondence or perhaps even using a handheld computer or laptop to deal with e-mails.”

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend accept my view that given that women are notoriously good at multi-tasking, it is possible for female Members to listen to debates, attend to e-mails and even think about what they are going to feed their children that evening?

Mr Knight: I hope that some male Members are also capable of multi-tasking, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): In considering how to refresh and enliven the Chamber, did the Committee consider ensuring that the Chamber has wireless reception so that we can communicate more quickly using our electronic devices?

Mr Knight: I believe that in such matters it is better to take one step at a time, but we may return to that, subject to the House’s conclusion today.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Knight: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey).

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. The hon. Lady has just walked in. It is a little discourteous, given that we have already started, for her to seek to intervene. She ought to allow others to do so first. It is up to Mr Knight whether he takes the intervention, but Members ought to listen for a bit before jumping in. Mr Knight, do you wish to take the intervention?

Mr Knight: I defer to your judgment, Mr Deputy Speaker, because you were facing in that direction and I was not. If that is you view, I am happy to give way to someone else.

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Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman is laying out a clear case. Does he accept that one of the other functions of using hand-held devices in the Chamber is to let the general public know what is happening? Our procedures are not always clear to the casual observer. Many people are interested in what we do, and Twitter, for example, is a good way of letting them know what is going on.

Mr Knight: There is certainly a strong argument for saying that we should not rule out of order anything that increases public interest in the Chamber and our Committees. I agree, therefore, with the hon. Gentleman.

There is also the question of consistency. Written notes as well as books, newspapers, letters and research papers may be used as an aide-mémoire. There is no difference between allowing a Member to consult his or her speaking notes or necessary documents in hard copy and allowing them to use an electronic device. Indeed, as more material is published in electronic format only, it might soon be the only way in which some documents can be consulted, particularly if the House of Commons Commission pursues its quest for further savings and decrees that some of our publications, which currently we enjoy in paper format, should be available in electronic format only.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I think that I inadvertently became the first Member to use an iPad for a speech in the Chamber a few months ago, mainly because I thought that we had been told that we now could—I picked that up from Twitter, so perhaps that is one of its perils. I was one of the last to be called in the debate and, whereas in other circumstances MPs might stick grimly to a pre-written speech, the fact that I could listen to Members and amend my speech as I went along meant that it was more of a response to the debate, as opposed to my coming along to say my five or 10 minutes’ worth.

Mr Knight: That is a very good point. What is the difference between the written word on a note made contemporaneously and referring to an iPad or other tablet device using the same process?

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that some of us think that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) proposes a more appropriate way of proceeding? It looks pretty bad if Members spend all their time looking at papers and other things that have nothing to do with a debate, but they look even less connected if they spend all their time playing with bits of electronic machinery. If we are here, we should be taking part in the debate, and the administration of our lives should happen outside.

Mr Knight: I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says. If I may, I shall return to his point when I address the terms of the amendment.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is wrong if Members decide to have a little snooze? The motion states that we should behave with decorum. Is that not the point? We should use electronic devices sparingly, but the option to use them should be available.

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Mr Knight: That is the essence of my argument—in whatever we do, we should behave with decorum. There is no duty on any of us to listen to the Member who has the Floor. The duty on us is to behave with decorum and not to be out of order, which is why it is appropriate to allow the use of these devices. In many instances, Members wander into the Chamber early and wait for a debate to start, and are not there to participate in the debate under way. What is wrong with Members discreetly checking whether they have messages, e-mails or other documents to review?

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): As a lowly member of the animal life in the House, I have previously had to wait six hours to be called right at the end of a debate. As my right hon. Friend suggests, those six hours would be much more fruitful if I could do some work while waiting to be called—owing to my low position in the rankings of the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman does very well when he speaks. Perhaps that is why.

Mr Knight: I agree with my hon. Friend, although I have never thought of him as lowly.

The issue is one of fine judgment. I have reservations about basing the rules on what activities are permissible or forbidden. First, the inadequacy of the reference in our current rules—to checking e-mails and nothing else—shows how quickly the range of applications on hand-held devices could outstrip any attempt to define what is acceptable. Secondly, it is difficult, if not impossible, proportionately to police activity on an electronic device. Do we really want the Speaker frequently to have to rule on whether a Member had been using a device for a proper purpose following a complaint from another Member? It is illogical to prevent Members from using electronic devices when they could use paper speaking notes and documents or other research. Why should we prevent Members from checking facts on the internet in the Chamber?

Claire Perry: I was told as a new Member of Parliament by those who shall remain nameless, “Never mind whether your facts are accurate. Just say them anyway.” Of course, I have never followed that advice, but there are many advantages of instantaneously being able to google an article or, for example, to send a message to the chief constable of Wiltshire police in order to deal with damning statistics being provided by Opposition Members. That is incredibly helpful to us in doing our job of holding the Government to account and being good parliamentarians.

Mr Knight: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Ministers have had this facility for years. Officials in the Box have regularly passed notes to Ministers so that the latter can gauge the accuracy of points being made. Why should this be denied to the rest of us, who could obtain such information electronically? The Procedure Committee therefore concluded by a majority that Members should be allowed to use electronic hand-held devices for any purpose when in the Chamber while not speaking and that the current ban on the use of such devices as an aide-mémoire when we are speaking in a debate should be ended. I understand that even Hansard is now willing to accept notes for speeches electronically, rather than

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asking right hon. and hon. Members for a hard-copy of their speech. However, we all hope that such devices, if allowed to be used, will be used with discretion and due regard to decorum.

The amendment that I suspect my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire will seek to move shortly would allow hand-held electronic devices to be used in the Chamber only to receive and send urgent messages as a substitute for paper speaking notes and to refer to documents in debates. There would be no right to search for information or to check e-mails while sitting in the Chamber.

Mr Gray: I cannot understand how my right hon. Friend has interpreted my amendment to mean that there should be no searching for information. Of course, there should be. The point of the amendment is that the devices could be used for any purpose connected to the debate, but for no other purposes. Of course, under the wording of my amendment as I understand it, they could be used to search for information.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): It does not say that.

Mr Gray: It does not have to.

Mr Knight: The amendment removes from the motion any mention of using such devices in Committee, which is extremely unfortunate because Select Committees already circulate non-confidential papers electronically. Indeed, I understand that the Administration Committee is piloting the use of electronic devices for the provision of some House papers. However, if my hon. Friend’s amendment is passed, the Chairman of the Committee alone will determine whether an electronic device may be used. The amendment provides no guarantee of consistency in Committee use.

Mr Gray: Perhaps the drafting of the amendment is not all that it could be—had my right hon. Friend drafted it, it might be better—but if the procedure in the Chamber were changed in the way I have described, I presume that precisely the same would apply in Committee. I acknowledge that the amendment does not say that, but that is the clear implication.

Mr Knight: My hon. Friend is now telling the House what he wished his amendment would do rather than what it does. I could not recommend anyone to vote for such an amendment. He drafted it, and it takes out all references to the use of electronic devices in Committee. In my view, Members should have certainty in what they can and cannot do in Committee. Imagine a Member attending a Committee with their notes on an electronic device and the Chairman saying, “Well, in my Committee we don’t use these devices.” That Member would be left high and dry.

Chris Bryant: If we were to presume, in the way the right hon. Gentleman does, that Chamber practice was consistent with Committee practice, the rule allowing hon. Gentlemen to remove their jackets in Committee, which does not apply in the Chamber, would presumably lapse.

Mr Knight: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.

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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): The amendment has been badly drafted, but there is another aspect to it. Currently Members have to sit in the corridor to use laptops; if the amendment is passed, they will have to stay in the corridor and will not be allowed in the Committee Room. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

Mr Knight: I do indeed. I am against the amendment for reasons of consistency. If Members can send messages between themselves by paper, they should be allowed to do so with electronic devices. Indeed, if a member of a Committee wishes to pass a message to a member on the other side of the room, it might be less disruptive to use an electronic device, rather than leaving his or her chair, because sending a paper message would mean going to the side of the room. As for enforcing the rules, it would be difficult for the Chair to determine during proceedings whether a Member was using an electronic device to send or receive urgent messages. Who is to determine whether the messages that I view are urgent? Surely that is a matter for me to determine, not the Chair. The Chair would therefore be expected to rule on what is an urgent message.

John Hemming: Is not the real challenge for anyone receiving a message to know whether it is urgent before they have received it?

Mr Knight: That is a fair point. We have to view our messages before we know whether they are urgent.

Mr Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con) rose—

Mr Knight: Although I am still halfway through my explanation of why the House should not support the amendment, I feel that I should give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr Gale: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. I would like to clarify something with him, because it is quite clear that he has not served on a Standing Committee for rather a long time. The Chairman of Ways and Means, in his courtesy and wisdom, allows members of the Chairmen’s Panel, of which I happen to be one, a great deal of leeway in determining how we run our Committees in the interests of good order and progress of business. Let me assure my right hon. Friend that in any Committee I am chairing Members are under no illusions whatever about whether they are allowed to use electronic devices, which they are not, whether they are allowed to bring tea or coffee into the room, which they are not, or whether they are allowed to take their jackets off, which they are. I have never yet had a problem with any Member being in any doubt whatever.

Mr Knight: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but he thereby underlines my case for passing the motion unamended. He has made it quite clear that if Committees were exempt, he would not allow the use of electronic devices, whatever view we took in the House. If we wish to see the use of electronic devices, I would invite the House to reject the amendment and pass the motion unamended.

The point about participation is not one that we can ignore, either. There is an argument that Members are more likely to attend debates if they are able to do other

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work while they are waiting to be called. That is why I believe we should allow the use of electronic devices in Committee and on the Floor of the House.

The remaining motions on the Order Paper, which you, Mr Deputy Speaker, have indicated we may debate together, contain three sets of recommendations that share a common aim: improving the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny. First, the Procedure Committee was asked by the Liaison Committee to consider whether Select Committees should be allowed to table amendments to Bills and motions being taken on the Floor of the House. We agreed to look at this and think there is a case for their being able to do so, subject to certain safeguards. Any amendment tagged as a Select Committee amendment should be agreed unanimously at a quorate meeting of the Committee, and notice should be given to all its members that such amendments will be proposed for consideration at a forthcoming meeting. We have also suggested that, subject to the established conventions on selection for debate and decision, the Speaker or the Chairman of Ways and Means might look favourably on a Select Committee seeking a separate Division on its amendments where business is programmed.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Let me say on behalf of the Liaison Committee that we are grateful that the Procedure Committee has not only accepted our proposal, which originated from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, but refined it, building in helpful safeguards. Is my right hon. Friend as astonished as I am that the Government appear to have it in mind to use the payroll vote to prevent what we propose from happening?

Mr Knight: I hope that the Government will have a change of heart even as this debate progresses, but I rather share the right hon. Gentleman’s feeling that that may not come about.

Secondly, we also recommended that we should conduct a further experiment in this Parliament whereby Members and Opposition spokesmen are encouraged to attach explanatory statements to amendments and the Government provide explanatory statements clarifying the origin of amendments and new clauses proposed on Report.

Thirdly, our Committee recognises that although written parliamentary questions are a vital part of parliamentary scrutiny, they impose a significant cost on the public purse. Although we felt it would be wrong to consider imposing restrictions on Members’ ability to table questions in person, we think we should have a three-month trial whereby Members are restricted to a quota of five written questions a day submitted electronically.

To assist Members, we also recommended that the Government should deliver all answers to parliamentary questions to the Member concerned by e-mail at the same time as the answer is delivered to the House, which is vital. I do not know whether Members know this, but answers are delivered by a person who literally walks round the building. He takes the answer into Hansard and then to the Press Gallery, and then he puts it on the notice board for the Member. I asked a question recently, and in my case I was the last point in the journey. The House business was collapsing and I was on a train when I had a phone call from a journalist wanting to know my view on the answer to my question, which my

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office had not received. On checking the board, I found that it had still not got there. I therefore do not think it acceptable for Members to be the last in the queue when receiving answers to their questions. That is why we feel that there ought to be a system in place whereby Members always receive an electronic reply immediately the answer is available.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I warmly congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee on an excellent set of reports and proposals on explanatory statements and so on. However, I want to press him slightly on the restriction on written questions that are only e-tabled, which seems to go against the arguments for consistency that have been marshalled for electronic devices. Surely a question should be treated the same whether it is tabled via the internet, by post or in person. Although we might need to look at a quota system, I cannot quite understand why electronically tabled questions need to be a special case, so that there is a quota for them but not for others.

Mr Knight: If I may, I will come back to that point in a moment. I want to deal completely with Select Committee amendments first, but I will return to the hon. Lady’s point and, if she is not satisfied, I invite her to intervene on me again.

The Procedure Committee was invited by the Liaison Committee to look at the possibility of a tabling system that would enable Select Committees to table their own amendments. The current practice is that amendments agreed by a Select Committee may be tabled only in the names of individual Members, which makes it difficult to distinguish Committee amendments from those tabled by the same members of the Committee acting as individuals. After consulting interested parties, the Procedure Committee published a report recommending that the practice be changed to allow Select Committees to table amendments to Bills and motions in the name of the Chair, with a tag line indicating the name of the appropriate Select Committee. The advantage of that practice would be that it would offer clarity to the House and to individual Members, and enable anyone reading an amendment paper to see that an amendment had originated in a Select Committee. It was also felt that it would contribute to the effectiveness of Select Committees.

We recognised, however, that there could be disadvantages, as individual members of a Select Committee might disagree with a proposed amendment, either at the time of its adoption by the Committee or afterwards. To counter that, the Procedure Committee recommended that stringent safeguards be built into the process whereby Committees agreed amendments that carried the special status of Select Committee amendments. We suggested that such amendments would have to be formally agreed, without Division, by a quorate meeting of the Committee. That is a more rigorous requirement than that for Select Committee reports, which can be agreed by a simple majority.

The Committee rejected the idea that Select Committee amendments should be guaranteed debate, because of the constraints of programming, but we supported the adoption of a convention that the Chair should grant a Division when one is sought. Unfortunately, as the

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Chairman of the Liaison Committee has said, the Government have indicated that they oppose this innovation, and I understand that they continue to oppose such a modest, sensible move today. Indeed, I have seen the Patronage Secretary buzzing round the House, rather like a wasp, discussing this matter. I therefore suspect that there could be a Government payroll Whip on this Liaison Committee suggestion.

The Government object to the proposal because they feel that it would be wrong for an amendment to be marked as having the support of a Select Committee if some of the Committee’s members might be in disagreement. We have tried to address that difficulty by recommending stringent conditions that would have to be met before a Select Committee amendment could be tabled as such. They include the condition that notice must be given before the Committee could agree the amendment. The Government say, however, that it would still be possible under the new arrangement for any two members of an 11-member Committee to approve an amendment on behalf of the whole Committee, as the quorum is only three and the Chair has a casting vote. That is technically correct, but I would suggest that the requirement for notice would make it most unlikely—or, in practice, impossible—that that could happen against the wishes of a majority of active members of a Committee.

Chris Bryant: With due respect, I do not think that either the right hon. Gentleman or the Government are correct in what they say. In this House, unlike the House of Lords, the Chair of a Committee has a vote only when there is an equality of voices.

Mr Knight: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. That makes my argument even stronger and the Government’s case even weaker, and I am grateful for his intervention.

Our proposal is merely intended to enhance the visibility of Select Committee issues, without in any way diminishing the position of individual members in voting for or against amendments on the Floor. This matter was not initially on our agenda, but the Liaison Committee asked us to look at it. We have done so, and this is our conclusion. I therefore hope that, even at this late hour, the Government will reflect on their opposition to it, which I feel is misplaced. We have given our view, and whether the proposal now proceeds further is a matter for the whole House.

I see the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) in her place. She was one of the Members who supported the idea of explanatory statements, which is the subject of one of the other motions on the Order Paper today. The House has conducted a series of experiments with explanatory statements, and the Procedure Committee has assessed them. We decided that the overall effect was inconclusive, but it was put to us that carrying out a further experiment in a new Parliament—namely, this one—could be worth while, and that it would also be worth pursuing the experiment during the Report stage of a Bill. That is what we have decided to recommend to the House, and we are pleased to note that, in a debate Westminster Hall on 3 February this year, which the hon. Lady attended, there was complete consensus that it would benefit not only Members but those outside the House to have an accompanying explanation of what an amendment or new clause was designed to do.

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I am rather more hopeful about this proposal, because the Deputy Leader of the House attended that debate and—it was a rare situation indeed—offered Government support for the measure. He said:

“Regarding explanations for amendments, we had the experiment in Committee and I am certainly happy, as far as the Government are concerned, for that experiment to proceed. Perhaps we ought to look at having such explanations on Report, too.”—[Official Report, 3 February 2011; Vol. 522, c. 384WH.]

I wholeheartedly agree with him, and I am glad that, on this issue, we are as one. I hope that he will confirm today that he now thinks it appropriate for us to trial the explanatory notes again in this Session and the next one. It would then be a matter for the House to decide in due course whether the facility was to be made permanent.

On the question of having a three-month trial quota for questions tabled electronically, the concern arose from evidence—mainly informal—from the Table Office. It found, when questioning the intended scope of some questions tabled electronically in Members’ names, that some Members appeared to know nothing about the questions and registered surprise that they had been tabled in their name. The Procedure Committee took the view that, in some cases, research assistants might be using the electronic procedure to table questions without the express authority of those for whom they work.

Questions are a proceeding in Parliament and should not be submitted without the express and explicit authority of a Member of Parliament. As the electronic submission method could be used without the Member’s knowledge, we decided, in this area only, to limit the number of questions to five in a three-month period to see what the effect would be. We are not recommending any restriction on the number of questions that a Member may take into the Table Office personally. This is a modest recommendation, and we hope that it will lead to Members being fully aware that a question is being submitted in their name.

Dr Huppert: Would an alternative be to encourage the use of electronic submissions and to introduce a system whereby, once a question had been received, it was automatically sent to the Member by e-mail? It would then be very hard for a rogue researcher to table questions without being noticed.

Mr Knight: That is a possibility, but we felt that, in the first instance, this three-month trial might lead to a small drop in the number of questions that a Member might deem worth asking. If Government Departments had smaller postbags to deal with, it could lead to better and quicker answers. We think that that is worth an experiment, but of course there are other options that we could look at. Indeed, as it is just an experiment, I would be quite happy to reflect on what the hon. Gentleman has said, should this motion proceed today.

Mr Gale: My right hon. Friend is being gentle and courteous, but I think it is time he took the gloves off. There is a very real problem of parliamentary processes being manipulated by others who are not MPs—lobbying bodies, researchers and other parties associated with MPs. The process is quite clearly being abused, and it is time it was brought under control.

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Mr Knight: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. This is a modest way of putting a check on the number of written questions going in and ensuring that in each case the Member is fully aware of what is being tabled in his or her name.

I have now laid my Committee’s recommendations before the House. I believe that they are all balanced, fair, proportionate and likely to assist Members in the performance of their duties. I commend them to the House—unamended.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. A 10-minute rule for Back-Bench speeches now comes into force. Will Members try not to use the maximum time and to cut down on interventions? The next debate is greatly oversubscribed. I understand that this debate is important, but people outside might not understand why we wanted to spend more time on hand-held devices than on high-speed rail.

2.1 pm

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in robust support of the main motion and strongly against the amendment. The main motion seeks to allow Members to use hand-held devices in a way that does not impair decorum. We are all adults, and we are all mindful of how we are viewed in the eyes of the public and of the importance of being respectful to each other. It is therefore right that we use our phones and our tablets with discretion. It is also correct that laptops should be banned—they conceal people’s faces and make a noise—and it is right that any smartphone or tablet should be in silent mode when used. It is always regrettable and often embarrassing when a colleague’s phone beeps or rings in the Chamber.

I cannot support an amendment that allows Members to receive and send only urgent messages. According to an e-mail that explained this amendment, the intention behind using the term “urgent messages” is to ban tweeting, among other things, from the Chamber. Twitter started five years ago and now has more than 100 million active users. More than 300 MPs use Twitter. It allows us, in a bite-sized 140-character nugget, to talk to people outside this place. While it is not a replacement for traditional forms of communication, it is a very useful way to connect with the communities we were elected to represent.

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): I am a user of Twitter myself. One of its advantages is that messages have to be condensed into 140 characters to communicate with the outside world. Does the hon. Lady agree that we could learn from that, and try to condense more of our contributions to 140 characters?

Luciana Berger: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. That point has been made by many people engaged in the discussion about whether we should be able to continue using Twitter from the Chamber. I shall go on to refer to some of those contributions.

Many of us have a function whereby our tweets are listed on our websites for people to read, particularly for those who do not access the main Twitter website.

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Some MPs have been lambasted for using Twitter solely to publish press releases or to state what they are doing. Others use it to engage in debate. A conversation on a topic can unfold on Twitter via a hashtag. I started #keeptweeting to initiate an online discussion and identify what the public thought about tweeting in the Chamber. I was careful to ask what people thought about using Twitter in this place, not outside it.

The fact that the amendment has been tabled at all has provoked anger from some. For example, @RichSwitch said:

“No wonder people think Politicians are out of touch”.

There were many tweets offering reasons why Chamber tweeting should continue. I will not read them all, but I have picked a few relating to a number of themes. Some see it as a means of engagement. For example, @LeamingtonSBC said:

“Surely anything which widens public participation in the democratic process is a good thing!”

Similarly, @NHConsortium said:

“Parliament already seen as cut off & static, don’t amputate it further.”

Others shared why Twitter was important to them in understanding what is going on. Thus @maggieannehayes admitted that

“parliament can be such an alien place. MPs tweeting enables us, the voters, to get a sense of what’s happening”.

Mr Gray: Does the hon. Lady agree with me that she has taken a somewhat self-selecting sample? She has asked the twitterers whether or not they like twittering. I would have thought that they probably would do.

Luciana Berger: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I shall come on to the responses of people who thought that we should not continue tweeting. I have a selection here. To continue, @PercyBlakeney63 said, “Citizens deserve transparency”, while @Daisydumble said, “Censorship of MPs now”.

Claire Perry: Does the hon. Lady agree that tweeting helps MPs to stay informed, in touch and accountable to their constituents, and that to ban it would be an inexplicable step back in time? That is 138 characters.

Luciana Berger: I thank the hon. Lady for her succinct, pithy and tweetable intervention of 138 characters, and I wholeheartedly agree with everything she said.

All too often we are accused of being inward-facing. The public say that we are out of touch and inaccessible. Twitter allows us to make politics relevant, and makes us as individuals accessible.

Kerry McCarthy: I am not sure whether my hon. Friend was in the Chamber when we discussed whether we should able to discuss whether the UK Youth Parliament should be allowed to sit here on a Friday for the second year running. It was a debate on whether to have a debate on that subject. Many MPs were here into the early hours of the morning. It was important that we could tweet and explain to people, particularly young people, what on earth this charade they were watching on the BBC Parliament channel was all about. Many

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young people wanted to know what we were talking about. I think that was the best use of Twitter in the Chamber that I have encountered so far. I think people valued the fact that their MPs were prepared to explain to them what was going on.

Luciana Berger: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and wholeheartedly agree with everything she said. That was a good example of something embarrassing—the prospect of not allowing the Youth Parliament to sit in this place. We debated it for many arduous hours and came to the right decision in the end. The fact that we were able to communicate with the public, particularly with those young people who wanted the opportunity to come here, was a fantastic use of Twitter. Twitter also enables us to offer an immediate reaction to a debate, to signal when we are going to speak—as I did just before I began my speech—and to inform our constituents how we are voting.

Dr Huppert: I have the great honour, I believe, of having been the first of all current MPs to join Twitter. It has been useful. [Interruption.] I was not an MP at the time I joined; I do not claim that. I, too, have received a number of comments about this debate. A number of people said that they had become interested in politics as a result of following Twitter and receiving tweets from myself, the hon. Lady and others. There are also people who actively tune into debates because they know what is happening; they can quickly understand what is being debated in this place. The TV and online audience for Parliament goes up because of Twitter. Another point is that deaf people have no better way of following a debate in this Chamber as it happens.

Luciana Berger: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes two points on which I shall elaborate in a few moments. As I said, I believe that Twitter, for the reasons I outlined, allows our constituents to hold us to account better.

A number of Members have said that if the public want to know what is going on, they should watch our proceedings on television. However, as @Scarletstand said, people “can’t all watch” it “on TV”. Not everyone has access to a television or a computer for internet TV, although they may have internet access to sites like Twitter on their mobile phones. It also less likely that the public would choose to watch the Parliament channel. The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) expressed in an earlier intervention his worry about what people might think as they watched us on television, but according to BARB—the Broadcasters Audience Research Board—the average weekly viewing per person of BBC Parliament is just one minute.

Kevin Brennan: That much?

Luciana Berger: That much. I think it is when they flick through to get to another channel. As @Scarletstand went on to say, tweeting from the Chamber

“helps voters gauge mood & tone”.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Is the hon. Lady aware of any evidence relating to MPs like me who do not tweet to suggest that our

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constituents are less satisfied with us than other constituents are satisfied with their MPs who do tweet?

Luciana Berger: I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that constituents would be less happy with their MPs if they did not tweet. I am saying, as I have said before, only that Twitter enables us to reach out to a wider audience. It should not be a replacement for traditional forms of communication, but for younger constituents and people who go on to our websites and want to see some pithy little updates, Twitter provides that opportunity. As I said earlier, it also enables people to gauge the mood and tone of this place, which they might not be able to pick up by watching television.

One aspect that had not occurred to me until I opened up the debate on Twitter is the fact that, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) mentioned a moment ago, it has positive benefits for people with hearing impairments. The BBC parliamentary channel is not subject to the BBC’s 100% subtitle commitment, and pledges just 800 hours of subtitled content a year. As @TimRegency observed, Twitter is one really useful way for deaf people to get involved in political discussion and debate.

Some objections were expressed. @JimSpin said that we could not concentrate and tweet. However, I would argue that we can, and that tweeting is equivalent to sending a text message, which takes just seconds. I agree with the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) that both women and men are able to multi-task.

@Donna_Smiley asked:

“Can surgeons tweet from operating theatres, policemen in a raid, jurors from courtrooms, teachers from classrooms?”

I would argue that the audience for each of those individuals—the surgeon, the teacher and the juror—is immediately in front of him or her, whereas we are accountable to our constituents, who are a long way from this place.

Do not get me wrong. I am not advocating constant tweeting, or tweeting while we are talking. As @TrojanFanl969 said,

“mp’s to use common sense. 50 tweets an hr bit silly, but selective use v good, engaging with electorate etc.”

Just two countries in Europe have banned tweeting, and I do not think that we should join them. @RichSwitch said:

“A ban on Tweeting in the chamber would be unconstitutional”.

I am not sure that I agree, but I do believe that—as he also says—it would be

“anti-democratic, regressive and bemusing to the public”.

2.11 pm

Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I am not speaking to a brief from the Administration Committee, and I am pleased that the written evidence submitted on behalf of the Committee—whose conclusions were unanimous—has been printed along with the report that is before the House today. What I am about to say will contain my own emphasis, in the context of the Procedure Committee’s report and its recommendations to the House, and I am aware that it will give me a good chance of becoming the leading candidate for the “dinosaur of the year” award.

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I think that we should appreciate the extraordinary reputation that the House has throughout the world. We should be humbled by the fact that whatever Parliament or the Government may say or decide, the institution itself is admired and respected enormously. People come from everywhere to see how we proceed as a legislature. I think that the requirement for us to stand on our own feet and use our own wits produces a quality of debate that has given all British parliamentarians a fairly high reputation around the world.

We should bear that in mind, because I believe that if it appears that we are being prompted from outside—which is entirely possible if hand-held devices are produced in the House—our reputation will decline. I am not targeting the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), but I believe that such devices will accentuate the tendency to read speeches, and the reading of speeches, which is discouraged by “Erskine May”, does have a dampening effect on debate. The hon. Lady made a very gracious contribution, and I repeat that I am merely making a general point.

Once, when I was in the Chair, I had to listen to a speech from an hon. Member who is no longer in the House. I thought that it had a certain ring about it, and indeed I discovered that it was a submission by that hon. Member to a Select Committee which was being read to the House. I was able to follow it word for word. I think there are certain dangers in going down that particular road.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many speeches that are based on closely written notes are a great deal more interesting than some of the more rambling contributions of other Members? I mention no names.

Sir Alan Haselhurst: I accept that the quality of our contributions may vary, and I certainly make no claims for what I have said in that regard. As the hon. Lady knows, I have experienced 13 years with no practice of speaking in the House, so I am a bit of a newcomer myself.

I sometimes wonder, though, what would happen when a Member was using an electronic tablet, for example, and the power went off. That Member could be caught in a very difficult situation. It is ironic, is it not, that we are discussing this matter at a time when one of the best-known devices, owned by many Members, is having problems in achieving the purposes that some Members have extolled today.

I know that I shall not be able to stem a tide of what is, I guess, modernity, but there can be no doubt that it is transformational, and that it does not necessarily accord with the style of debate that we have used in the House over the years. Twice, when I had the privilege of sitting in the Chair, I had to restrain hon. Members from making telephone calls from the Chamber simply because the device was there. No one is suggesting that telephone calls should be made, but the fact that the device is there and can be used for that purpose does, I am afraid, lead to infringements. I also noticed that the Whips on duty on the Government and Opposition Benches were often distracted by the use of their devices and were not keeping pace with business, which created a dysfunction with the Chair.

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Such devices are very compelling when they are in someone’s hand. It is not a question of what they might do, which is what is being recommended, but a question of what they can be used for. We know that people’s eyes tend to be drawn to a television screen when they visit someone else’s house. Similarly, the press of a button on a hand-held device can easily enable someone to view images from outside the House that command his or her interest. People know of my interest in cricket. How convenient it would be to ascertain what was happening in the Test match at that very moment! As the bowler was walking back to the end of his run, I should be able to look up and appear interested in what was going on in the Chamber, before looking down again at what was happening at the match.

Notwithstanding the qualified nature of the recommendation before the House—and the fact that it is accompanied by an even more curious suggested qualification from my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray)—the Chair will have no means of knowing what is actually happening when these devices are in use. When we admit them—if we do—we shall have to recognise that they can be used for a variety of purposes that the Chair will find very difficult to distinguish from one another.

Mr Gray: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sir Alan Haselhurst: I am afraid that I will not. It would extend the length of my speech, and I do not want to do that in view of the limited amount of time left. I apologise to my hon. Friend, because I did refer to him.

It has been said that the purpose of allowing hand-held devices in the Chamber is to enable Members to get on with other activities—what my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) described as multi-tasking. I can honestly say, however, that over the years the Chair has tried to accommodate colleagues by not making them sit through the whole of debates. The convention is that Members are present for opening speeches and for the speeches immediately before and after their own, but the Chair sometimes provides guidance, bearing in mind that we are all under heavy pressure to do so many other things nowadays. I therefore do not think that the idea that Members have to be present for six hours and must get on with their work during that time is a particularly good excuse.

I am not sure whether this still happens, but I know that the public have complained about the fact that the Chamber is so often empty and have asked, “Where are they? What are they doing?” One of my constituents said to me once that any Member who was not in his place in the Chamber for the whole of a debate should be deselected. That has been the level of misconception outside the House. But now, as they look around the Chamber, the public are beginning to notice that Members are, in fact, doing something. A moment ago I saw several colleagues, heads down. It is not a question of whether they are able to multi-task, or whether they are unable to listen to what is being said; it is a question of what the public think they are doing—and they do appear to be distracted from what is going on. That is a reputational point, and the House should consider it. Although I suspect that the House will bow to the

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inevitable and say, “This is progress,” we must be aware of the direction in which we are heading and understand that the character of our debates is likely to alter.

The Administration Committee report suggested that we should trial this move much more in Committee first, and I still believe that. I used to have doubts on this subject. When I was the Chairman of Ways and Means and the Chairman’s Panel, we were rather opposed to the use of laptops, but I think that the tablet is different. It is less obtrusive and can be used effectively to deal with notes on clauses and all matters related to Committee work. I encourage this course of action, therefore, and that is why the Administration Committee is trying out how to operate in a paperless manner.

To my mind therefore, a better balanced response would have been to say, “Let’s see how this works in Committee before considering whether there is an essential difference between the work in Committee and the work in the House.” My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), for whom I have great respect, said what he was commending was a balanced approach on hand-held devices. I think the Administration Committee proposal, which I have advocated in my speech, would have offered a better balance still.

2.21 pm

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I warmly welcome this debate and congratulate the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) on his Committee’s work. I support the Procedure Committee recommendations on Select Committee amendments and handheld devices, but I shall focus on the motion on explanatory statements to amendments. That might sound like a very dry, technical and abstract issue, but I believe it goes to the heart of exposing something that is rotten about the way this place works. When I first arrived in Parliament as a new MP last year and started voting on legislation, I was shocked to discover that, due to lack of time, some Government amendments go through on Report “on the knife”, with neither debate nor explanation. That effectively means that legislation is being passed with no scrutiny whatever.

It is equally scandalous that many MPs frequently have no idea what they are voting on when they file through the Lobby. The Procedure Committee has done excellent work in trying to address that problem and has offered the simple solution of explanatory statements. I addressed this issue last year in a report entitled, “The case for parliamentary reform”. Following that report, I was able to secure a lively and well-attended Backbench Business Committee debate in Westminster Hall, which was held on 3 February.

During that debate, I was heartened by the degree of cross-party support that there was for the idea of explanatory statements for amendments taken on the Floor of the House. That was supported because the public would be rightly outraged were it to be widely known that legislation is being passed undebated and that many MPs are simply not in a position to know what they are voting on.

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): Given the sheer volume of legislation that passes through this place, the truth is that none of us can be fully familiar with all of it. Surely the hon. Lady could be a little more generous-spirited to the rest of the House?

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Caroline Lucas: The hon. Gentleman underlines my point. I am not blaming Members as they simply cannot know the minute details of the effects of all amendments. That is why having explanatory statements—a limited amount of text clearly explaining what a particular amendment seeks to achieve—is so important. If Members had that information, they would be much better able to exercise their vote judiciously on behalf of their constituents, and would be able to put their hand on their heart and say, “Yes, we do know what we are voting on here.”

I was about to discuss the question of who is at fault. I am not blaming hon. Members; I am blaming the way we work. Given the way our system is set up, it is perhaps understandable—but it is not acceptable—that many MPs have to rely on the Whips to tell them how to vote, and do not really know what the amendment they are voting on actually does. I have seen Members literally being physically propelled through the Aye Lobby in support of Government legislation even as they are trying to find out the significance of what they are voting on.

Members might be less likely to be treated in such a way if there were a simple explanation of the effect of each amendment under consideration, and at least they would know whether they actually agreed with the Whips’ directions. If there were explanatory statements, there would be more transparency and better debates, and Members would be better able to object when the Government make a large number of significant amendments to their own legislation on Report with inadequate time for scrutiny.

It is, of course, absolutely right that MPs should as much as possible listen and contribute to debates in the Chamber, which should enlighten them on the effect of any given amendment. However, as all Members know, being an effective MP involves many other tasks, including responsibilities to undertake work on Committees, to attend debates elsewhere, to chair and attend meetings, to take part in all-party groups, and to meet constituents. As a result, MPs do not, and frequently cannot, sit in the Chamber for all the time that the debate on amendments on which they will later vote is going on. Furthermore, if it were easier to work out what the amendments meant before the debate, more MPs might contribute.

It is obviously good for democracy for MPs to know what they are voting on, but it is also important that we have a system that can be easily understood by members of the public who want to follow a Bill. Currently, interested citizens who might be following proceedings on television or on Twitter have to go separately to the Bill, then look up the clause and then probably go to the explanatory notes to the Bill to try and make sense of what is happening. We need a remedy.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Lady mentions explanatory notes to Bills, which we currently have. Does she agree that the proposal under discussion is simply an extension of what is already available? We have explanatory notes saying in plain English what a Bill does, and to extend that to amendments is a common-sense proposal, particularly for those of us and our constituents who do not have legal training. I have had experience of sitting in a Bill Committee and reading an amendment proposed by another Member and wondering what it means. Sometimes that is not clear until the debate starts. This proposal would address that problem.

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Caroline Lucas: I completely agree. The hon. Lady’s comments underline the fact that the proposal is not as complicated as rocket science; rather, it is an extension of the common-sense measures that are already in place.

Chris Bryant: I must have been reading different explanatory notes than the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) as I have never known them to explain anything. I fear that explanatory notes on amendments would be even worse, and I note that the report states:

“An explanatory statement is not required where the amendment is self-explanatory”.

Caroline Lucas: The hon. Gentleman can try to make fun of this proposal if he wants, but in the European Parliament it is mandatory to have an explanatory statement and it is incredibly useful. If it is condensed down to about 50 or 100 words and explains what a measure is intended to achieve, an awful lot more people will have an awful lot more sense of what is going on. If the hon. Gentleman wants to stand up and say he thinks it is absolutely fine that so many Members do not know what they are voting for, that is up to him, but I am not happy about that.

Several hon. Members rose

Caroline Lucas: I want to make some progress.

There is an ongoing pilot in Public Bill Committees, which is permissive in that it allows Members to table explanatory statements to amendments if they wish. What is now needed is to make that pilot permanent and to extend it, so that Members can table explanatory statements in Committee of the whole House and, crucially, on Report.

Given this state of affairs, it beggars belief that a Government who say they want more transparency and a healthier democracy were so negative and obstructive in their response to the Procedure Committee recommendation for explanatory statements on the Floor of the House. Why are the Government doing their utmost to block this simple move, which seeks to make sure that MPs are not just rubber-stamping legislation and to prevent the Government from sneaking things through on Report without any scrutiny whatever?

The Government try to use the low take-up of the Public Bill Committee pilot as an argument against changing the status quo on the Floor of the House, but that argument does not stand up to scrutiny. First, as the Government well know, MPs serving on Public Bill Committees will all be thoroughly engaged in the detail of the Bill, and the 20 or so members of a PBC voting on an amendment that they have all thoroughly discussed in minute detail is quite different from a Division on the Floor of the House, where 650 Members are called to vote, the majority of whom have no idea of the specifics of what they are voting on. So explanatory statements would be there not for those who had tabled them but for those who are voting and, thus, the suggestion that a lack of action from people tabling them equates to a lack of demand simply does not stack up.

If the Government really want to measure demand, why do they not simply survey MPs running down the escalators from Portcullis House to the Lobby all asking

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each other hurriedly, “What’s this on? What’s going on? What are we voting on?” Furthermore, the Government should have been leading on this pilot. If they had made the effort to provide explanatory statements consistently themselves, they could have created a culture where such provision was expected. Instead, they did nothing to participate in or assist with a simple pilot of a mechanism to increase transparency.

When I tabled explanatory statements alongside my amendments in the Energy Public Bill Committee, MPs from all parts of the House told me how helpful they found it. This is about leading and working to change the standards that Members expect, and have expected of them, when they try to change legislation.

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): I understand that this proposal does not require the Government or anyone tabling an amendment to provide an explanation, but merely allows them to do so.

Chris Bryant: The Government have to.

Zac Goldsmith: So it requires the Government to— I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention on my intervention.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I think that we will have the debate carried out through the Chair.

Zac Goldsmith: My apologies, Mr Deputy Speaker. Does the hon. Lady agree that this should be a requirement on anyone tabling an amendment in order to boost slightly the chances of people having some idea of what they are voting on when they go through the Lobby? I absolutely concur with her view that most people have no idea what they are doing when they vote.

Caroline Lucas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I agree with him. It should be the case that not only the Government, but all Members should provide a short explanatory statement explaining the purpose of any amendment that they table. That would help everybody.

The Government’s complaint about these explanatory statements, as set out in their response to the Committee’s report, was that the statements would be a “burden”. Their idea that providing the statements would be too burdensome for them displays an incredible arrogance. If they want to change the law, they have to accept the work involved in making their intentions transparent. They should be more respectful of the right of this House to scrutinise the laws they want to pass.

In conclusion, this proposal is about redressing the balance between Back Benchers and the Executive. The Executive are riding roughshod over the rights of Back Benchers to scrutinise them. The Government have put up obstructive objections, which demonstrate their desire to maintain a massive imbalance in their favour. This is bad for Back Benchers, bad for democracy and bad for the legislation that we must live by. So long as MPs are not told what they are voting on and Government amendments go through without debate, our system merely delivers an illusion of scrutiny. I can think only

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that the Government are trying to protect a system that serves to keep MPs as Lobby fodder and to keep the public in the dark. We are talking about secretive and opaque processes that serve against transparency and are reminiscent of the processes preserved for so long to try to hide the expenses scandal. I can assume only that the Government are taking this approach with some deliberate measures in mind. The fact that MPs have no idea what they are voting on is a scandal. It has been going on for years, but as the public find out more about it, as with expenses, they will be rightly horrified.

Eight months have passed since the debate on parliamentary reform in Westminster Hall, and I am disappointed that it has not been possible to effect greater change more quickly. I hope that the motion on explanatory statements will go through today. If it does, it will be a quiet but significant win for transparency and democracy. But if the Government force a vote, whipped or not, I hope very much that Back Benchers will stand up for themselves to address a glaring fault in our parliamentary democracy and correct the appalling imbalance that currently favours the Executive.

2.32 pm

Mr Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): I shall be very brief, Mr Deputy Speaker. I rise to support the amendment standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray). I am particularly concerned, as a member of the Speaker’s Panel of Chairs, at the impact of the proposals before the House on behaviour in Committee. I fear that if the report goes through, as it is suggested it will, and if that impact is felt on the Floor of the House, it is almost inevitable that those of us who find ourselves in the business of having to chair legislative Committees upstairs will be under similar pressures to allow similar devices in Committee.

What we have experienced in the House over the past few years is, first, a definite shift away from the use of notes and the participation in genuine parliamentary debate, of which this country has historically been very proud, and towards the preparation and reading of speeches. The preparation has been carried out either by the Member concerned or by other people who then persuade the Member to read the speeches for them. That has become particularly prevalent in Public Bill Committees. It is no great secret that hon. Members on both sides of the House have taken to reading into the record vast tracts of brief prepared by lobbyists for the sole purpose of putting something on the record. That is not debate: it is a misuse and an abuse of the processes of this House. If we are now to suggest that hon. Members on both sides of the House are going to be allowed to twitter and tweet and receive comment in the course of these debates, it is inevitable that we will have people sitting in the Public Gallery sending messages, saying, “Ask him this,” “Tell her that,” or “Read this.” That is not what this place is about. If hon. Members come into this Chamber, they can and should be expected to sit down, listen to the debate, hear what other Members are saying and agree, disagree and comment accordingly, rather than simply reading out prepared speeches.

As the Chairman of Ways and Means, Mr Deputy Speaker, you, like your predecessor, have been extremely understanding in giving leeway to those of us who chair legislative Committees, allowing us to manage the business on the Floor of the House, when there is a Committee

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of the Whole House, or in Committee in our own way and in the interests of the Members and the business they are trying to get through. It works. Any man or woman sitting in the Chair, whether that is the big Chair in which you sit, Mr Deputy Speaker, or the slightly smaller Chair in one of the Committee rooms, has to exercise the Nelson touch and we do so constantly. We know what is going on; we know that on occasion the processes of the House are being abused.

We know that hon. Members are busy people and that within the next six weeks, before Christmas, Committee tables will suddenly be piled with Christmas cards being signed while Members are also participating in Committee business. That is inevitable. It is multi-tasking and a dual use of time, but as a Chairman I object to the kind of situation that occurred fairly recently in a Committee over which I was presiding. A Front-Bench spokesman—I will not name the party—was so obsessed with an electronic device and the manipulation of that machine that they missed the amendment they were supposed to be moving, in spite of my best efforts to get their attention from the Chair and draw them back to the business in which they were supposed to be participating. That is nonsense.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Gale: No, I am going to be very brief.

Outside the Committee Rooms upstairs, there are wonderful green benches, rather like the ones in the Chamber, and lots of tables and telephones where people can go and work, send messages, receive messages, have cups of coffee and do what they like outside the Committee Room. I can see no place for these electronic devices in the Committee Room at all, any more than I can see any rhyme or reason why Members should sit there reading newspapers and magazines, which is, of course, also not allowed.

I accept—and use—a radio pager. On occasions, I have received messages while I have been in the Chair and I have had to say to the Badge Messenger, “Here’s a telephone number. Can you please go and ring that person and tell them that I cannot talk to them because I am in Committee and that I will ring them when I come out?” I do not have a problem with that—I do not know a Chairman who does. I do not have a problem with the sensible, quiet, courteous and discreet use of these machines in precisely the way that the House of Lords, at the other end of the building, has adopted the procedure. If we go down the route that is to be proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, we shall achieve what we want to achieve, which is a solution that is pragmatic, practical and protects the dignity of the House. I urge the House to accept the amendment.

2.37 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I support the proposal ably put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight)—and he is my friend. He has recently printed an excellent book, “Dishonourable Insults”, in which I appear on page 163, and I thank him for that, too—[ Interruption. ] It is available in all good book shops and I wish him every success. When I intervened on him earlier, I suggested

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that in addition to his proposals we should ensure that we have wireless reception in the House of Commons Chamber. Not so long ago, when I was trying to live tweet during Prime Minister’s questions—I had advertised the fact that I would try to do so in advance—I failed completely because of the poor reception we sometimes get here for electronic devices. I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, if, in doing so and in making that admission, I was breaking some rules of the House at the time.

May I clarify one thing? I had a little contretemps in the Chamber earlier this year with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), who told us with his characteristic modesty that he was the first MP ever to sign up for Twitter—

Dr Huppert rose—

Kevin Brennan: I see I have provoked him into intervening, and I cannot say no after I mentioned him, can I?

Dr Huppert: I thank the hon. Gentleman for praising my modesty—that is very kind of him. We did have that discussion, but I think things have moved on. I wanted to be clear in case I misspoke earlier: of the current MPs, I believe I was the first. I was certainly not the first MP on Twitter. I do not know who has that honour, although I am sure they will claim it later.

Kevin Brennan: I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention because he has highlighted the fact that what I said about his modesty was meant to be ironic, and Hansard does not pick that up very well, so this gives me the opportunity to make that clear. Let me repeat a proposal that I have made in the past—that irony should be put in italics in Hansard so that everybody outside reading it can understand what exactly was meant.

The contretemps that the hon. Gentleman and I had was in relation to a point of order that I raised while you were in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. At that time, your ruling was interpreted as a ban on the use of Twitter in the Chamber, but I know, having had subsequent talks with you, that that was not exactly what you meant.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. For clarification, it is not that what I said was not what I meant—it was that people had not listened, I think.

Kevin Brennan: I stand corrected, Mr Deputy Speaker. As ever, what you said was very wise indeed.

Returning to the point about the hon. Member for Cambridge, my point of order related to his use of Twitter in the Chamber during a debate when he was disputing something that was being said from the Dispatch Box by another Member. I think that some very reasonable concerns have been raised by opponents of the motion on how it could impact on the quality of debate. I have always thought that if one has a point of dispute or question about what is being said by someone who has the Floor of the House or other Chamber, one should attempt to intervene before one starts putting out messages disputing what they are saying on Twitter. I think that is the kind of courtesy and common sense that the Chairman and his Committee are calling for in their recommendations.

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Yesterday, I met a delegation from the central committee school of the Communist party of China, who were very interested in what I had to say about communications and Twitter and the way that MPs use them. If I tell the House that the delegation was somewhat sceptical about my advocating the use of Twitter, hon. Members might understand that I think it is a force for good, for democracy, for free speech and for communication with our constituents, and not a source for bad. I understand the concerns held by many hon. Members on the Government side but I think they might find themselves embracing this means of communication in the near future as a good way of getting their messages about politics and their views out there and of engaging in interactive discussion with their constituents and others.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he agree that social media such as Twitter and Facebook give MPs the chance to broadcast to their constituents without relying on broadcasters?

Kevin Brennan: I do. Further than that, it can also lead to opportunities to broadcast through the more conventional media. For example, as some hon. Members will know, yesterday in Welsh questions I asked the Welsh Secretary to ask the Prime Minister, when he was sitting next to her, to make sure that the Welsh flag was flying over No. 10 Downing street this weekend, just as the flag of St George flew last year during the World cup, to acknowledge the achievements of the Welsh rugby team. After Prime Minister’s questions I was invited on to a phone-in on Radio Wales on which there was a very lively discussion about this proposition. By five o’clock in the evening the Prime Minister had quite rightly agreed that the flag could be flying, and I give him credit for that. So, very quickly, Twitter, conventional media and the use of this Chamber altogether were involved in getting a result for constituents. I think that is a good example of how this technology can be beneficial.

Jo Swinson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Kevin Brennan: I will give way for the last time because I had not intended to take up my full time.

Jo Swinson: I am very grateful. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although Twitter can certainly be useful for broadcasting, the real value of that kind of interaction is that it is not solely about broadcasting, with MPs sending out messages to constituents, but that it allows two-way communication and can really engage people in the political process?

Kevin Brennan: I just about heard the hon. Lady over the twittering of her colleagues at the Bar. She is absolutely right. I was about to make that point, but I will not do so in the interests of brevity, because she has made it for me.